It’s been about a year since Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. While we wait for Rogue One, it’s a good time to reflect.
When Episode VII first came out, I watched videos and read reviews that criticized the film for being a copy of Episode IV. Some of these made valid points. But overall, they missed something.
I’m going to make the case that Episode VII is first of all a good Star Wars film, and second of all a very good film.
My thesis is this: despite it’s weaknesses and flaws, The Force Awakens is a good addition to the franchise because it plays with variations on a theme, which is the DNA of the Star Wars universe.
The biggest critique I’ve heard from people is that Episode VII is just a copy of Episode IV, a New Hope. This criticism has been made over and over in many different ways by different people.
The basic idea is that if you are ripping off your own franchise, then that’s bad. JJ Abrams and Laurence Kasden as screenwriters were being timid, playing it safe, giving fan service, overreacting to the fear of making “another prequel” level garbage fire, that they didn’t have any new ideas.
Some people will lay out the overlapping plot points: a young orphan on a desert planet with an unknown past, who is force sensitive, is rescued off the planet, while protecting a droid, and so on.
These are valid points. Those allusions are part of what you are supposed to get out of Episode VII. At the same time, think about the millions of people who are seeing Force Awakens as their first Star Wars film ever. It’s hard for me to imagine, but many people ages 16-80 have never seen any Star Wars films until this one. (Episode VII is a a great movie in that it’s good at inducing you to go watch IV – or even start with Episode I.)
Two responses, though: The first is that Variations on a Theme is not Copying. The second is that the Star Wars franchise is all about variations on a theme.
1. Variations on a Theme is not Copying
The artistic principle of variations on a theme is a standard means of producing excellent art. A Bach sonata is the repetition of many scales, but not perfectly matched. There are a lot of different ways those scales progress. Think about music like Daft Punk as compared to much standard house music; Daft Punk builds in real progression in their songs, despite using loops and tracks, by using variation on a theme. Not so much their Human After All album which is very repetitive, for a reason. But that’s another story. I’m talking about Discovery or the Self-Titled albums, where there is real variation on a theme. Variation on a theme is a way films quote each other: think about the way Wall-E quotes 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the Thus Spake Zarathustra them plays in 2001 it indicates a jump in human evolution, from ape to man, and from man to Star Child – in Wall-E, when the music plays, it indicates that the Captain is standing up on his fat feet for the first time in ages. Or think about the way Terrence Malick quotes Andrei Tarkovsky – the end of Tree of Life, for instance, quoting the end of Ivan’s Childhood with the dead boy running on the beach. This is a normal artistic practice to take a plot point or character or device and tweak it slightly; re-using it with that variation. Don’t break what works.
I think every single plot point or character or moment in Star Wars: The Force Awakensis being changed. This turns the criticism on its head: even though almost everything significant is a variation on Episode IV, almost nothing is directly repeated.
- Rey and Luke are both orphans. Rey isn’t just a female Luke: she’s all alone. She doesn’t have an aunt or uncle.
- Rey and Luke are both young. But Rey is not naive the way Luke is; she is obviously exploited by the merchant where Luke grew up being loved and cared for and sheltered.
- Rey and Luke are both on a desert planet. Luke is a farmer who happens to be good at fixing droids; Rey is a scavenger, she takes droids apart and sells them to strangers to survive.
- Rey and Luke both leave their desert planet. Luke longed for adventure to the point that cut scenes show him wishing he could join the rebellion and become a fighter pilot; Rey wants to stay. After she leaves, she constantly talks about going back to meet her family.
- Rey and Luke are both good pilots. However, Rey is already good at hand-to-hand combat because she’s had to take care of herself, where Luke has to learn how to fight with a saber, gun, and so on.
- Even the dreaded Starkiller base. It’s Death Star 3.0, but it’s different. The Death Star is a machine, it’s inorganic; Starkiller base is an actual planet. DS’s power is uncertain, it seems to be some kind of reactor; SK Base actually consumes the power of the sun. DS can destroy a planet; SK Base can destroy whole systems.
- Han Solo and Chewie save the hero. This time, they’re not mercenaries for hire; they’re doing this for free to help the kids.
- Snoke and Emperor Palpatine both appear as larger than life holograms. But we never meet Snoke in person, as of yet, and he doesn’t appear to have any political sway other than ordering the General around.
Every moment tweaks your expectation. Every moment sets you up for an identical match and then twists that expectation toward something new. Everything is copied but also varied. You can say “It’s still a copy,” but I’m trying to argue, yes, variations on a theme is a legitimate way to make art in general.
We have to be careful not to move the goalpost. Some critics say one moment, “Episode VII is a copy of Episode IV” and then in the next moment they’ll say “Episode VII copies from Episodes V and VI too”. Those are contradictory. Either it’s a straight copy of IV or it’s not. And you can’t copy IV, V, and VI in one film; because 4 5 and 6 weren’t one film. The SK Base alludes to Ice Planet Hoth but Hoth isn’t in Episode IV.
So what they’re doing is setting up VIII and IX. What they’re doing us is telling us, “You know the old Star Wars Univers you love? We’re back there. We’re still there but it’s different. And things are going to get even more different. We’re not just copying old events or retreading old plots; we’re going to set up whole new adventures, new worlds, new characters, new families, new fears, and new hopes.
- Kylo Ren and Darth Vader are both black masked evil Sith lords who strike fear in all around them. But Kylo Ren is clearly a young, petulant, wannabe villain compared to Darth Vader’s hardened awesomeness. Ren resembles Maul in some ways more than Vader.
- Finn and Luke both save the girl, but Rey is not Leia; Finn and Han Solo are both wild cards who started out bad but turn good but Finn is literally a turncoat New Order Soldier where Solo is a low-life freelance scoundrel. Leia and Poe are both tortured by bad guys in masks for information about a droid; but Poe is not the new Leia.
Critics ignore Finn largely. We’ve never seen anything like him; he’s not force sensitive, so he came over from the “Dark Side” not of the force but from the rank and file. He’s funny, he’s got lots of energy, John Boyega does a great job, but in terms of Finn’s character, he’s something new, breaking new ground.
Poe is sort of like Han Solo; but the big difference seems to be that Poe is good through and through from the beginning. Whatever Poe’s journey turns out to be it will be very different from Han Solo’s journey in Episode IV.
Anything you care to mention is the same: it’s a variation on a theme, not a copy: there’s a Yoda allusion with Maz Kanata; but she is certainly not Yoda because she is not a Jedi. (Philip below commented that she is force sensitive, but I’m not yet convinced.) Thematically, she’s more like Jabba in that she runs the watering hole, but in IV, the heroes don’t go to Jabba’s palace for information and advice the way Han goes to Maz. In other words, the overlap is very different. You can say it’s recycled but I’m going to say it’s a smart move for this moment in the franchise.
2. Variations on a Theme as the Arche and Logos of SW
The second point about variations on a theme, and this one is even stronger, Is that the entire Star Wars universe is about variations on a theme from day one. From the Original, back to the Prequels, even some of the Expanded Universe, Star Wars Rebels and Clone Wars, the games – everything Star Wars is going to have the force, good and bad, technology and space, aliens and humans, but it’s going to play variations on a few basic themes. The proof is from Lucas himself. Lucas wanted the story to be a Monomyth. If you’re not familiar with the Monomyth, it’s the idea from Joseph Campbell and popularized by Lucas and Vogler that many or all myths have a common structure. There are common patterns that show up in many different myths from Cinderall to the Prose Edda to the Ring of Niebelung, to the Old Testament, to Plato’s Atlantis. They’re all different but they’re all the same; they’re variations on a theme. There is one pattern that is endlessly varied, just like Bach might take a single C-major chord and vary it a hundred times, or a Jazz band might take a jazz standard and vary it. So what Lucas did was take a story, a saga that expresses the monomyth, and expresses variations on the theme.
Episode IV copied from Joseph Campbell’s anthropological study of myth, but also from Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa. Also Episode VI is full of variations on IV; Episode I is full of variations on VI and IV – especially VI if you believe the Ring Theory. Episodes IV and VI mirror each other beacuse Luke is going through what Vader went through; Luke (whose name means “light” in Latin) faces the same temptations as Darth (whose name is a variation on the English work “dark”) but Luke overcomes them. Luke and Leia are twins. There’s Han the rogue and Han the hero and general. There’s Wookies and there’s Ewoks.
Episodes IV, V, and VII are clearly spinning off of each other. But even the prequels are not very good films, but they are good Star Wars films. The Ring Theory gives an account of how the first six films are cohesive.
The point is that not only is variations on a theme a legitimate way to make art, but it’s part of the essential DNA of SW. JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy and Laurence Kasden get that, they built it into to Episode VII, earning himself the right to make Episode 8 very different.
Rian Johnson who’s making Episode 8 is going to do something wild and whacky and crazy and new. All the people who thought 7 was too similar to 4 are going to love 8; the people who loved how solidly grounded 7 was might be weirded out by 8 because it’s going to springboard off into wild territory. That’s my guess.
I do think 7 is worth watching, it’s got a shiny exterior and little bit of substance to it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens entertaining? Yes. So it works on the level of a pure Hollywood, JJ Abrams blockbuster.
Rushed, Force Coincidences, etc.
Another criticism is that the film is too rushed and doesn’t allow enough time for emotional depth. This one I concede; it’s too rushed, it doesn’t give you enough time to feel the deaths of the system that SK Base destroys, it doesn’t give you the hug between Leia and Chewie that we needed; it doesn’t give you enough time to realize that Maz Kanata’s ancient watering hole has just been destroyed. The list goes on…
With the exception of the first 20 minutes where we meet Leia, it doesn’t give you enough time to breathe. Frankly, it doesn’t give you enough expositional dialogue – what’s up with the First Order? Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they want? But some of these errors can be fixed with a director’s cut. Abrams was so paranoid about accidentally re-creating the prequels that he must have cut out some good dialogue. There must be some good footage lying around that can be added back in to pad the film and change its pacing and rhythm and emotional register.
Of the deleted scenes, the only one I thought was funny enough that it should have stayed in, was the dialogue between Han and the Stormtroopers in the basement of Maz Kanata’s cantina.
Another criticism is plot holes and coincidences; that might be a valid criticism. To me it doesn’t seem to me to spoil the enjoyment if you can suspend disbelief and go with it. There is lots of coincidence and fate in the original trilogy too, but I’m not sure if it’s as much.
The copycat criticism, at least, isn’t valid and certainly should’t spoil the film.
Like, comment, and share if you agree – or even if you disagree to the point of hatred.
We’ll see how Episodes 8 and 9 go.